Leaked emails show Amazon’s drone delivery team is manufacturing face shields for COVID-19 and crowdsourcing employee ideas to improve warehouse safety (AMZN)

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  • Amazon’s drone delivery team, Prime Air, is using some of its lab space and equipment to manufacture face shields that can be used by warehouse workers, according to emails obtained by Business Insider.
  • Amazon Robotics, the team overseeing Prime Air, has recently launched an internal portal to crowdsource employees’ ideas on how to help the company improve its warehouse safety conditions amid COVID-19.
  • The moves reflect Amazon’s urgency to create a safer working environment for its warehouse workers by leveraging its high tech workforce.
  • Do you work at Amazon? Contact this reporter via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1 415 926 2066) or email (ekim@businessinsider.com).
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Amazon is tapping into its high-tech workforce to help improve its coronavirus-related safety measures across its warehouses amid growing criticism about its response to the pandemic.

Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery team, is using parts of its lab space and resources to manufacture face shields for its warehouse workers and local hospitals, according to emails obtained by Business Insider. 

Separately, Amazon Robotics, which oversees the drone delivery team, is crowdsourcing other employee ideas through a newly launched internal portal to help support the company’s response to COVID-19, one of the emails said.

Amazon’s representative declined to comment.

The initiatives give a rare look into how Amazon is now trying to leverage its deep pool of engineers and scientists in dealing with COVID-19, following mounting criticism over its loose warehouse safety measures that has allegedly resulted in hundreds of infected workers so far. Amazon has repeatedly defended working conditions in its warehouses, saying it’s made over 150 process updates, including enhanced cleaning of facilities.

Some of the drone prototyping labs and equipment, like ply cutting machines, are now being used to produce face shields, according to the emails and people familiar with the matter. The team, composed of some of the most advanced aviation and manufacturing experts, has made “thousands” of face shields since going into production on April 16, and is working under the goal of delivering at least 1,000 units per day, the emails said.

While the broader drone team is running as normal, one person on the team told Business Insider that some of the long-term projects have been paused to focus on this initiative. Another person said Prime Air’s labs are ideal for this type of work because it deals with a lot of compliance issues.

“Wanted to update you and thank Prime Air team in supporting Covid19 initiatives for local hospitals and face shield manufacturing for our associates in [fulfillment centers],” said one of the emails from last month. “Very proud of this team for jumping in with their bias for action while they continued their regular daily activities.”

Amazon gave access to the plastic face shields, typically used by medical workers, to all Whole Foods employees and Prime Now delivery workers last month. Face masks were made a requirement for all Amazon warehouse workers last month as well.

Still, those efforts have not been able to quell the public outcry over Amazon’s warehouse working conditions. A series of worker walkouts took place over the past month in protest of Amazon’s treatment of warehouse employees, while groups of corporate employees publicly criticized the company’s decision to fire whistleblowers. Just last week, Tim Bray, a longtime Amazon executive and influential software developer, stepped down after writing a blistering blog post slamming the company’s response to COVID-19.

“I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19,” Bray wrote in the blog post.

Amazon’s robotics team hopes to find other COVID-19 project ideas that could take advantage of its technical resources — from its own employees.

Brad Porter, VP of Robotics at Amazon, announced in an email last month that it’s launching a new internal portal called “Safety Innovation Portal,” where employees can review and submit ideas that can improve warehouse working conditions during the pandemic. The portal is meant to be a “single repository for recommended innovations” that can be launched within the next 6 months, the email said. Employees can submit ideas until May 8.

“Remember, a good idea is one that is rapidly actionable (within 5-6 months) and improves the safety of our associates,” Porter wrote.

Porter said the ideas should fall under one of the following four categories:

  • Virus Identification and Sterilization– process or technology to eliminate the spread of the virus by disinfecting object that are touched by multiple associates (handrails, totes, etc).
  • Improved Social Distancing Opportunities– processes or technology that will allow associates to perform tasks where they do not have to be within 6 feet of other associates.
  • Monitoring/Auditing Social Distancing– monitor and provide feedback to associates when they unintentionally come within 6 feet of other associates.
  • Improved Operational Performance to Minimize Associate Touches– apply processes or technology to reduce the necessity for multiple associates to touch the same object.

The employee response appears to have been good so far. In a separate blog post on LinkedIn on Wednesday, Porter wrote that he’s excited about the drone team’s help and that he’s already been reviewing some of the new ideas.

“My Prime Air drones and robotics group has become an R&D lab for COVID innovation that I can’t wait to share with you,” Porter wrote. “Today I reviewed a list of 72 new ideas for improvements we can make.”

Do you work at Amazon? Contact this reporter via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1 415 926 2066) or email (ekim@businessinsider.com).

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